CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Press watchdogs have raised concerns over Thailand’s deportation of Burmese media professionals to Burma, where they face prosecution after publishing an article that upset their government.
The publisher of Rangoon-based Bi Mon Te Nay journal was detained in the Thai border town of Mae Sot last week along with his wife and an employee. They fled from Burma because they faced charges for publishing an article based on a statement by an activist group that mistakenly claimed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government.
Eight members of the journal, including the publisher and employee caught in Thailand, are accused of violating the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, which prohibits disruptions of law and order. If convicted, they could face lengthy prison sentences.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) on Tuesday decried the charges.
“SEAPA is disappointed that the Thai authorities handed over the Burmese journalists given the threats of what we believe are unjust persecution,” Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Bangkok-based press group, told The Irrawaddy, adding that the punishments allowed by the Emergency Provisions Act were too severe for the case. “The Thai authorities should have weighed the circumstances facing the three, and not sent them back.”
Burmese journalists are facing increasing pressure from the government. Earlier this month, four journalists and the chief executive of another Rangoon-based journal were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor after publishing an article alleging that a defense factory was producing chemical weapons. Their imprisonment was also criticized by press watchdogs and activist groups.
“We are very concerned that the Bi Mon Te Nay journalists will be subject to unfair trials in the country. Handing them over to Burmese authorities to be jailed for reporting may be in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, given the government seems to be clamping down on critical media,” Venkiteswaran said.
Non-refoulement is a principle of international law that prevents governments from sending victims of persecution back to their persecutors. Instead, according to the norms of international humanitarian protection in democratic countries, people fleeing persecution should have the right to seek asylum abroad.
Thai and Burmese authorities often cooperate on the border to detain fleeing criminal suspects, especially drug traffickers and human traffickers. But critics point out that the Burmese journalists from Bi Mon Te Nay are facing political charges, not criminal charges.
Shawn W. Crispin, senior Southeast Asia Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the organization was worried over the latest case against Burmese journalists and the arrest of some of the accused in Thailand.
“We are troubled by reports that journalists with the Bi Mon Te Nay news journal have been apprehended and deported from Thailand on bogus charges filed against them by authorities in Burma,” he said.
Crispin added, “The fact that Burma is jailing journalists again shows just how shallow Thein Sein’s supposed reforms really were. Western governments that have rewarded his regime for its reforms should consider revoking those benefits and reimposing sanctions in response to recent egregious press freedom violations.”
The Thai Journalists Association said in a statement on Wednesday that it was “alarmed and deeply concerned” with the harsh prison sentences handed to the Unity Journal reporters, adding that it “signals a significant reversal of the progress of Myanmar’s fragile media freedom from previous advances in the past two years.”
The Thai junta announced over the weekend that it would shut down media organizations that criticized it or published reports threatening national security. On Monday, however, the junta said it would allow media to make “honest criticisms” of its operations, according to a report by the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper.
This story was updated with comments from CPJ and the Thai Journalists Association on the morning of July 23.